About a dozen years ago, Padraig Harrington was watching a Champions Tour event when Arnold Palmer gave a post-round interview. "He came off the course absolutely brimming, grinning ear-to-ear," Harrington recalls. "He said he'd found the secret — at 70! I thought, 'I want to be that man. I want to be 70 and loving golf and getting better.' "
And that's why Harrington changes his swing more often than a politician changes his mind. For the Irishman, seeking the secret is the secret. "I see myself as a kid out there thinking, 'I'll find the secret every day.' Change is what I do. It's who I am." Who he is, incidentally, is a three-time major winner, with 19 combined PGA and European tour titles, who hasn't claimed a trophy in the U.S. or Europe since the 2008 PGA Championship. What's more, last year Harrington failed to qualify for the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1997. Not that the 41-year-old seems worried. Golf Magazine caught up with him at his home in suburban Dublin, where a relaxed Harrington, coming off a missed-cut at the Masters, defended his swing changes, explained why he's toying with anchored putting, and revealed the main reason he's not the player he used to be.
The last time the Open Championship came to Muirfield, in 2002, you finished one stroke out of the playoff that Ernie Els won. How does Muirfield stack up against the other Open venues?
It's one of the players' favorite venues because it's a strong but fair test. There are fewer bad bounces. The fairways are flatter. It's a solid, what-you-see-is-what-you-get course. It's not like Royal St. George's, which gets so hard that tee shots can run 80 yards. It's the least links-like Open course because it's the most just.
Can a hot player just show up and win a British Open, or does it demand weeks of preparation playing links courses in British Open weather?
Yes, a hot player can show up and win, especially at Muirfield, which doesn't require massive amounts of local knowledge. But the best scenario is to be a hot player who comes over early to get accustomed to links courses. Because even I, who grew up playing links courses, have to adjust after playing on parkland courses.
What takes the most adjustment?
It's startling the way the ball reacts in links golf versus parkland. The ball flies lower. The weather affects the ball so much more. A 10 mph wind on a parkland course is not a big deal, but 10 mph on a links can affect the flight of your ball by 20, 30 yards. The air is heavier. There's nothing protecting the course from the wind. Everything is magnified.
What memories most stand out when you think back to Carnoustie in 2007, your first major win?
It's funny. Last Christmas, I watched highlights from that Open for the first time since 2007. It's amazing how you perceive things differently than how they happened. I thought the putt I made to win [on the fourth playoff hole] was a tap-in, but it was every bit of three feet. Yet I brushed it in like it was a foot.
Near-disaster almost kept you out of the playoff. With a one-stroke lead on the 72nd hole, you hit both your drive and your approach into Barry Burn.
That was my worst hole of the week, but the tee shot didn't bother me. Anyone can hit a bad tee shot, especially on No. 18 at Carnoustie, the toughest hole in golf. But after I hit my approach shot in the water, I thought I'd lost. I'd choked. It was over. I was utterly embarrassed. I'd let everyone down. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. But my caddie [Ronan Flood] talked me through it.
What did he say?
[Laughs] He used every cliché in the book: "It's not over yet…One shot at a time…Let's just finish and see where we are…" A barrage of statements. He was talking as we walked toward the green. For the first 50 yards I wanted to throttle him. For the second 50 yards I was listening. And for the last 50 yards I was believing him. He helped me get back in the zone. It was amazing. You never get back in the zone after doing what I did on that hole. Yet I did.
His pep talk helped you hit a good pitch to get up and down and salvage double-bogey, good enough for a playoff with Sergio.
Right, and I hit that pitch like I was a kid showing off. Like, "Watch this, lads." After hitting two in the water! He helped me put those water shots behind me. At a corporate outing months later, I was saying to the people, "I thought I'd lost the Open, but my caddie believed in me." Ronan looked at me and said, "I thought you'd lost the bloody Open, too — I was just doing my job!"
Your playoff with Sergio didn't seem all that warm and fuzzy. And memorable exchanges with him?
We didn't have a lot to say. The most memorable exchange was no exchange.
When did it sink in that you were a major champion?
In the middle of the night that night, I woke up, and the Open trophy was there on a table at the end of the bed. I woke up my wife and said, "Look! There's the trophy. It wasn't a dream." And she said, "Just go back to sleep."
Tiger played in that British Open, but injuries kept him out of the 2008 British and '08 PGA Championship, both of which you won. Does it bother you that he wasn't there for two of your three major wins?
No. Not in the least.
Wouldn't it have been more special to win those titles with the World No. 1 in the field?
It doesn't worry me. First off, I'm the only one who has a better stroke record than Tiger when playing with him — at least as of a couple of years ago. I've beaten him when it wasn't significant, and he beat me down the stretch at Firestone [in 2009]. Whether or not he's in the field, you still have to beat the best guys that week. I'm only interested in results. Wins. Hard facts. I still had to beat 156 guys who aren't gonna pack and leave if Tiger's not there.
How do you assess Tiger's game today?
I think he passes Jack for 19 major wins. Time is on his side. He's still the best player in the world. He mightn't be as dominant, but look at his last four majors — in contention in all of them. His game is suited to winning majors, and if he plays great, he definitely wins. The difference today is that his "B" game doesn't win majors anymore. Other players have improved.
What's up with your fellow Irishman Rory McIlroy? Is he in a slump?
He has hot and cold spells. Remember, last summer he had a spell where he missed three or four cuts, then won three times late in the year. That's who Rory is.
Rory is compared to Tiger a lot, but maybe he's more like Phil Mickelson: very talented, very streaky.
And as Rory accepts that that's his style — and he's starting to — he'll start to peak more every week, because he won't push to make things happen. He'll relax, press less, let his game come to him. When he pushes for those results every week, he gets frustrated and it knocks his confidence back. And those weeks when he's on? He laps the field.
McIlroy lost his No. 1 ranking to Tiger earlier this year. Did Rory ever confide in you that the pressure of being No. 1 weighed on him?
Confide? No. But all pro golfers — and it's magnified when you're No. 1 — feel the world looking at them, focused on them, thinking about them. It's amazing how much we Tour players think everything revolves around us. Every small issue — let's say you tweeted something — just seems so massive. But it's not. I went through the same kind of thing with my recent swing changes. All of a sudden, everyone was talking about my changes, or at least I think they were, so it becomes a bigger deal to me, and I spend all my time explaining or defending. We live in our own little worlds, and we think everything revolves around us, and that's more intense at the top of the World Rankings. And I'm sure that's been true with Rory.
On the topic of running hot and cold, you're winless in the U.S. and Europe since 2008. Do you believe you'll win more majors, and how many would you be happy with?
My feeling isn't, "I've got my three majors. I'm done." I have a number in my head. I won't say what it is, but it's a number that I treat as inevitable. It's a Bob Rotella concept: You walk around knowing and feeling like your number is inevitable, and that makes you press less. Winning majors takes time. Look at Ernie Els. It took him 20 years to win his four. Only three guys playing have won more than me: Phil, Ernie and Tiger.
Is your number greater than or less than six?
Well, I'll just say that six is a pivotal number. Six has meaning. It's the most any [modern] European player has ever won. [Nick Faldo]
Do you fear that your fourth major will never come? You're 41, and you've changed your swing several times.
I've always been changing my swing. I changed before I won my majors. After I won one in 2007, I made a big swing change for 2008 — and won two more. I've made massive changes to my swing. The only thing I know is change. That's all I can do. The minute you ask me to stay still, I'll retire.
The average golf fan might think, "Harrington wins three majors and changes his swing? He's nuts!" What do you say to that guy?
I change to get better. I'm motivated to get better. I've made substantial swing changes at 10 points in my career. Changing and improving gets me up in the morning.
But if your swing ain't broke, why fix it?
People see my three major wins in 13 months and think that's who I am. That was a peak! That's not my average. That's not who I am every day. That's who I can be. Okay, I won one major in 2007, two in 2008. Does that mean I should win three in 2009? Winning majors doesn't go smoothly. Jack Nicklaus won 18 majors, but he didn't win one per year. Tiger didn't win one per year on his way to 14. There's no consistency in winning majors. If you want to be consistent, you can be consistently mediocre.
It sounds like you don't regret your recent swing-tinkering.
The media misinforms people. I made big changes in 1996 and 1999 and before 2008. The changes I made after 2008 are much less than those, but it gets talked about more because I'm under the magnifying glass because I'm a major winner.
So why are you winless since 2008?
You know what's been a complete nightmare? Changing grooves. The box grooves were easier for me to use out of rough and with chipping and pitching. I had a lower flight with more spin. It was a massive advantage on links courses to know how your ball was reacting. The grooves change [that went into effect in 2010] has cost me one shot a round. That's massive. I'm still adjusting, especially around the greens. I'm an aggressive player; I don't hit as many fairways and greens as the next guy, so box grooves suited me.
Were you against that rule change?
Not at all. It was a good change for golf. It was a terrible change for me. But some things that are good for the collective are bad for individuals.
The proposed ban on anchored putting would take effect in 2016. You have an unusual stance. You believe anchoring is against the spirit of the game, yet you made the switch in May. Why?
It's better for my putting. I saw all these long putters and thought, "Well, there must be something in it." I have a machine that monitors all this putting data, and I'm technically better with an anchored putter. I don't decelerate, and my [clubface] rotation is better. It helped give me confidence on short ones [at the Players Championship], so when I have a 20-footer, I'm not worried about knocking it three feet past.
You might not be able to use it for long.
Well, three years is a long time in pro golf.
Do you see it as cheating?
Look, it's not cheating. On one hand, I disagree with the anchored method. I really do. It's against the spirit of the game. It's not good for golf. It's controversial. It's a distraction. On the other hand, I'm a professional, and I've got to do everything I can within the rules to compete today. Sure, it will be banned in 2016, but by then I'll be 45 — and how many guys win majors after 45? I feel a sense of urgency.
Interesting. So it's not cheating until the rules say that it's cheating?
Absolutely. I don't see any problem with it so long as it's within the rules. I'm a great believer of the rules. You live and die by the rules, and the rules say it's okay for now. It's no different than getting a legal drop that gets me away from the cart path and also away from a tree. I'm delighted! Am I gonna say, "No thanks, I don't want the drop — I'll accept that I'm behind a tree." No way. The rules penalize me some days and help me on others.
Will we see you with your belly putter at Muirfield?
We'll see how it goes. With the guys who use anchored putters, it seems that the longer they use it, the better they get. It will take time to get a feel for it. It's a big step. I'd been working hard on my [conventional] putting, but the areas where I struggle seem to fall in place using a longer [anchored] putter.
Are you worried what fans or your peers are saying about your switch?
I'm not worried about them or what the media says. But there is my mother, Breda, to think about. She knows that I've been considering this switch.
She's old school?
Yes, and she's absolutely horrified. If I was an amateur, I wouldn't make the switch. But we're out here putting and playing for money, playing for history. [Laughs] So, sorry, Mom.
This interview appears in the July issue of Golf Magazine. To read Golf Magazine on your tablet — free for subscribers — visit golf.com/allaccess.